Intelligent Machines

Computer Animation Comes Alive

Computer animation is as pervasive as rock and roll these days-on television, in the movies and almost everywhere else you look. But while music fans have long had “greatest hits” albums to enjoy at their leisure, anyone curious about the origins of computer graphics could only view them in rare conference or museum presentations. Now there’s a video that could easily be called “Computer Graphics’ Greatest Hits: The 1970s.”

The two-tape compilation (actually called “Filmography of Computer Animation 1960-1980”) is a special edition in an ongoing roundup of state-of-the-art graphics published by the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics, or SIGGRAPH. But this nearly four-hour-long collection focuses mainly on works produced during the 1970s, a time of “explosive growth in computer animation,” according to the collection’s curator, Judson Rosebush.

For $180, viewers get a trove of innovative demos and art pieces. Ed Catmull and Fred Parke’s “Hand/Face” (1972), for example, shows the first computer animations of human features; a hand waves and faces emote in crude black-and-white renderings with blocky surfaces-after hours of off screen computer rendering for each frame.This ingenious feat, achieved on computers with the power of some of today’s calculators, paved the way for the “virtual human” technology that’s now starting to populate movies with synthetic actors.

This story is part of our November/December 1999 Issue
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Another staple of today’s digitally animated visual world-real-time interactive color-debuts in “The Last SuperPaint Demo” (1977) by Dick Shoup, his early version of the Paint programs kids routinely use today. And if you’ve ever wondered where those annoying “flying logos” on TV station IDs came from, take a look at their precursors,”Television Titles” (1979); these were among the first commercial applications of computer animation, created by Rosebush’s own pioneering Digital Effects firm.

Rosebush admits that this collection is hardly definitive; rights problems kept a number of classic pieces out of it. But to dig into the roots of the computer-generated visuals that have grown up all around us, there is no substitute for this anthology.

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